On Oct. 3, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted a test of an alert system designed to inform the public of national emergencies. Unlike weather alerts or AMBER Alerts, users with participating service providers cannot opt out of Presidential Alerts.
It would be easy to make jokes here, because so much of Trump’s presidency plays out like a stunt gone wrong, an absurd and dangerous prank on democracy and reason. But the problem with Presidential Alerts isn’t that Trump will utilize them as the new twitter.com/realdonaldtrump—the alert system is managed by FEMA—or that they’re inherently bad. The problem is that they’re useless and redundant; people with cell phones are the people most likely to encounter news elsewhere: in a news app, on social media, via a text or a phone call.
If there were an assassination, a terrorist attack, a declaration of war—the kind of dire emergencies that might prompt an alert—we would all want to know. But would we all need to read the news at the exact same time, in some strange, dystopic, singular spasm of panic? Must we be perpetually on call for disaster? And what is the benefit of instant, simultaneous knowledge of a Very Serious National Emergency that would, no doubt, be completely out of the hands of the public? We would all find out soon enough. What do the extra minutes, maybe hours, earn us? It seems strange that the kind of alerts most pertinent to each of us—local weather alerts, children missing or spotted in our area—the kind of alerts that actually require action, are the ones that we can easily switch off. It’s the Presidential Alert, the one that will go out after the Big Bad Thing, that we are required to receive.
To me, the constant possibility of these alerts feels like one more way we’re all tethered to Trump’s government and its inevitable emergencies. We can’t detach; we can’t opt out. Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone reading this should detach completely from politics and its real-life manifestations. I hope that we all remain civically engaged, that we care for the people in our communities and in our country. I hope we read carefully about contemporary social and political issues, that we vote, engage in political discourse, contact our representatives, and protest inequity. I hope that none of us favor our own comfort over the comfort of those less privileged, but I also hope that we recognize the importance of breaking away from the anxiety of the news, from incessant reports of doom and failure. Of course, presidential alerts will not be regular; if they occur at all, they will be rare. But they reflect the culture of the information age, specifically the idea that to be good citizens, we need to know everything that happens as quickly as possible. I think many of us have convinced ourselves that we are ethically responsible for bearing witness to everyone’s pain, everyone’s emergency, even if we’re not going to do anything about it (or if there’s nothing we can do about it). But information does not equal helpfulness or productivity.
If I’m going to encounter the news anyway, and if I can do nothing to immediately alleviate the damage (this is national emergency here, people), then why do I need this alert? I don’t. When I imagine Trump, in the wake of this hypothetical crisis, giving the go-ahead, some part of me bursts with nostalgia for the town crier.